ADMITTANCE TO THE CITY OF ANGELS
Returning from Central America I made
the smallest jest at the passport station
and found myself in line C4. Three places
ahead stood a Latino—tall, late thirties
perhaps, crisp white clothes, Panama hat,
shepherding two large bags and a
He stood straight and still as they
emptied his bags mechanically,
two factory workers deconstructing, unfolding trousers,
uncoiling a belt, unrolling mated socks, tossing item after item
on the stilled conveyor belt.
He kept his hands in his pockets as they opened bottles and tubes
and poured and squeezed them empty into a bucket
that smelled at first like wheat fields.
He removed his hands from his pockets and hung them
as they opened every envelope and read each letter,
hefted, smelled, and felt the safety razor, hairbrush, and dental floss,
removed the back from a framed picture and separated the photo from
its backing, tapped the heels of tall black boots, unscrewed the barrel
of a gold fountain pen, dropping each item
onto the growing heap.
They spoke, and he removed his hat. They slit the hatband
neatly as surgeons. I saw him breathe in
when they cut the cord that held the large hammock,
pulling the ornate poles from the grip
of knotted white loops, leaving them stretched and dangling,
close-parentheses in a tight row.
They pried off the ends of the poles and peered inside,
tilting them like telescopes toward the fluorescent lights above.
The agents closed the line and went away with the man
for half an hour. The rest of us waited, assembling our faces into
nothing. He was buttoning his white shirt as they returned.
After the agents turned to the next person in line, the man labored
to assemble the hammock but gave up, wrapping the pieces
in the stretched body. He worked over his clothes, moving
his large hands through the wrinkled heap of shirts,
pants, envelopes, camera, underwear. Just before I was called
I saw him wrap a belt around his hand and jab it into the solar plexus
of his bathrobe. He stood a moment, hand buried, then went on,
folding a towel, blue with a white monogram.